Recently, I went to Chicago and was so desperately looking forward to the plane ride because I knew I would be able to use that time to finish up the last 100 pages of this book. Indeed, I did.
Of course, I know it’s a trivial accomplishment considering I’ve completed just one out of seven volumes. Yet, finishing any book that is a challenge to read is no small feat. I like flowery language, quite a lot, but the way in which Marcel Proust goes on and on (and on) puts me straight to sleep. The endless succession of names of people I don’t know, the constant listing of streets and landmarks in various obscure French towns, the inventory of each thought of every person who may have been present in a single memory. It’s all a bit much.
And yet, considering the lack of plot and the keen observations of what it means to be human, to love and be loved, I see why this body of work is considered a modern classic. There really is no point to the story. There is no exposition, no climax, no falling action. But it is about life, and love, and the way in which different people come into your life and the stories they bring with them.
Even when he was not thinking of the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind in the same way as did certain other notions without equivalents, like the notion of light, of sound, of perspective, of physical pleasure, which are the rich possessions that diversify and ornament the realms of our inner life.
Perhaps we will lose them, perhaps they will fade away, if we return to nothingness.
On a trip to Paris, near the Église de Saint Germain des Prés, I heard a piano. As I walked toward the sound, I came upon a young man, his dog, and a small piano inside of a car. On the doors, signs explained that this was his home, including one of my favorites which said something to the effect of, “If you think this is impressive, you should see the tennis courts in my bathroom!”
But it wasn’t the mediocre beige van that remained embedded in my memory. Instead, it was the song he was playing. It was Paris in the summer at night. The streets were filled with people, the metro was running past, traffic continued with a steady hum. Amidst all of the city sounds, his piano filled the small piece of sidewalk that had become my own, that I shared with the handful of other people who had paused to listen to the haunting melody. It still gives me chills.
Proust is a master of capturing what it means to experience the senses. The song that Swann associates with Odette, with love and nostalgia, is the same as the madeleine dipped in tea and the power of uttering Swann’s name and address when young Proust thinks of Gilberte. In addition to sight, our memory and hearts are taunted by smells and sounds that uncontrollably give rise to our emotions.
…what a contradiction it is to search in reality for memory’s pictures, which would never have the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from not being perceived by the senses.
In fact, all this talk of Proust and memory reminds me of my post about the punk exhibit at the Met, in which I was searching for my own nostalgia and experiences in a time and place where they no longer exist. And those memories will forever remain sweet and longed-for since they can only exist in my mind. A type of New York madeleine.
Photo of Saint Germain des Prés via Wikimedia Commons.